The legendary feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem got into a spot of bother last week over her comments on the battle for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential election. Speaking on the Bill Maher show, Steinem, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton, suggested that young women were only supporting her rival Bernie Sanders in order to meet ‘boys’:

They’re going to get more activist as they get older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.

It didn’t help that, on the very next day, another prominent Clinton supporter – former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – urged women to vote for Hillary on the grounds that ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Both women have since attempted to explain and apologise for their remarks, but the damage was already done. A political campaign in trouble – Sanders won the New Hampshire primary convincingly and was neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa (see this post for my shameless attempt to claim a very indirect personal connection to his campaign) – looked like it was resorting to desperate measures, implying that it was the duty of American women to vote for Hillary, simply because of her gender. I wonder if Albright or Steinem would have said the same about Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, or a few years ago, about that bête noire of Democrats, Sarah Palin? And I’m not sure I can imagine other female politicians – such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, or Angela Merkel – arguing that people should vote for them simply because they were women.

The backlash against Steinem’s and Albright’s interventions has been pretty fierce, even among feminists. Cultural commentator Camille Paglia, a self-confessed Sanders supporter and never one to mince her words, wrote this about Steinem’s statement:

With Bernie Sanders’ thrilling, runaway victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the old-guard feminist establishment in the U.S. has been dealt a crushing blow. 

Despite emergency efforts by Gloria Steinem, the crafty dowager empress of feminism, to push a faltering Hillary over the finish line, Sanders overwhelmingly won women’s votes in every category except senior citizens. Last week, when she told TV host Bill Maher that young women supporting the Sanders campaign are just in it to meet boys, Steinem managed not only to insult the intelligence and idealism of the young but to vaporize every lesbian Sanders fan into a spectral non-person. 

Steinem’s polished humanitarian mask had slipped, revealing the mummified fascist within. I’m sure that my delight was shared by other dissident feminists everywhere. Never before has the general public, here or abroad, more clearly seen the arrogance and amoral manipulativeness of the power elite who hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.

And as for Albright’s contribution, Paglia commented:

Waspishly policing the earth was evidently insufficient for the feminist politburo, who are now barging into the salvation and damnation game.

The rest of the article rehearses the reasons why Paglia fell out with those whom she calls the ‘old guard’ of second wave feminism.

Many people thought that Gloria Steinem’s statement was out of character, but I have to admit that it didn’t really surprise me. It brought back memories of when I heard her speak at an international gender equality conference in New York last year. (This was the same conference at which that other doyenne of feminist activism, Jane Fonda, made a surprise appearance at the end of our seminar presentation.) Steinem was one of the keynote speakers at the gala event on the first evening. For the first ten minutes or so, her speech was engaging and entertaining, and something of a relief, coming at the end of a three-hour event in which we’d heard a succession of very worthy but often rather dull presentations.

But then Gloria went off script and treated us to a long historical excursion, which was just as much out-of-left-field as her comments last week. The main burden of her argument seemed to be that, in the ancient world, everything in the garden was rosy in terms of gender equality – until nasty old European civilisation came along and began to oppress women. Turning to her own country, Steinem claimed that Native American women enjoyed full equality until, once again, those pesky Europeans intervened and spoiled everything. Gloria told us about her frequent visits to Central Park to hug the rocks that have been there since ancient times and which connect her to the lost world of gender equality that our horrible western civilisation destroyed.

Well, one doesn’t have to be a professional historian or a cultural imperialist to think that there might be some flaws in this account. Personally, I think Steinem had things back to front. I’m not an expert on ancient civilisations, and some of them were certainly matriarchal and others had features we might admire. But surely there’s a strong argument that it was only with the coming of the European Enlightenment, and its proclamation of innate human rights and liberty and equality for all, that it became possible to think of women as autonomous human agents, rather than the chattels that they often were in ancient times? Some would go further and argue that the Enlightenment built on a longer western tradition, based on the dual pillars of Judaeo-Christian ethics and Greek philosophy, that emphasised the sacred value of every human life.

By contrast, Steinem’s version of gender history seemed to be spun out of a kind of fanciful New Age romanticism, in which non-western cultures were idealised and modern western civilisation demonised. Does it matter? Well, I’d argue that perhaps it does.

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College (via The Guardian)

In my online disagreement with Glen Poole back in December, I took issue with his attempt to write off feminism as a whole, because of some of its more extreme manifestations. At the same time, I acknowledged that, like any broad social movement, contemporary feminism certainly has one or two troubling aspects. I gave as an example the experience, earlier that month, of Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born secular feminist campaigner, whose speech at Goldsmiths College in London was noisily disrupted by male members of the college’s Islamic society. Instead of standing up for her, the Goldsmiths Feminist Society issued an astonishing statement condemning Namazie and supporting the actions of the Islamic society. Since then, we’ve had the events in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, when dozens of women were sexually assaulted by gangs of men, said to be of North African or Middle Eastern origin. Some feminist commentators seemed slow to condemn these actions and appeared more comfortable excoriating the admittedly racist groups who sought to take advantage of the situation than the perpetrators themselves.

For some, these examples confirm a trend within western feminism to ignore or downplay the oppression of women in non-western countries and cultures. I got into a disagreement on Twitter recently when I took issue with a United Nations report that highlighted the inequalities suffered by women in the United States, surely one of the freest and most equal societies in the world for women – rather than focusing attention and resources on the countries in the world where women are truly oppressed – whether that means being sexually enslaved in ISIS-controlled Iraq, married off before puberty in Yemen, or imprisoned simply for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These are deep waters, and as a mere male pro-feminist I’m reluctant to wade in, particularly as I know Gloria Steinem’s writings have meant so much to many women. However, I’d suggest that a straight line can be drawn between the kind of anti-westernism and romantic idealisation of non-western cultures that I heard Steinem espouse in New York – and the skewed priorities that we witnessed in the cases of Maryam Namazie and the Cologne attacks.

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders (via The Guardian)

After Cologne a number of critics proclaimed the ‘death’ of feminism. They were wrong, of course. But if the movement for gender equality is to survive and win over a younger generation, and at the same time counter the criticisms of the men’s rights movement, then I’d argue that it needs to let go of cultural relativism and embrace a bold vision of universal human rights, without fear or favour towards any culture or grouping. And it needs to forsake the kind of crude identity politics that Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright indulged in last week. Indeed, some have argued that it’s precisely his refusal to play this game (despite being the first Jewish candidate, and indeed the first non-Christian, to win a US primary election), and instead his keenness to emphasise that ‘we’re all in this together’ that may help to explain why the ‘boys’ – and girls – are increasingly ‘with Bernie’.